President Barack Obama and other NATO leaders sought to demonstrate that the coalition in Afghanistan isn’t unraveling following a pledge by newly elected French President Francois Hollande to withdraw from Afghanistan ahead of the previously set timetable.
“The world is behind this strategy that we’ve laid out,” Obama said after meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and before the opening of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit in Chicago. “Now it’s our task to implement it effectively.”
With public support for the war waning after more than a decade and defense budgets being strained in the U.S. and Europe, Obama plans to have the U.S. and its partners switch from the lead combat force in Afghanistan to supporting Afghan units by next year. Under the president’s strategy, Afghanistan will take responsibility for the country’s security by 2014.
The president’s emphasis on solidarity reinforced remarks made earlier today by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen that coalition forces in Afghanistan wouldn’t leave prematurely.
“There will be no rush for the exits,” Rasmussen told reporters today. “Our goal, our strategy, our timetable remain unchanged.” He said he was “not surprised” Hollande is vowing to keep a pledge he made while campaigning for office.
“We very firmly support the idea of ’in together, out together,”’ Merkel said. “We and the United States share that philosophy,” she said, adding that she expected Hollande will “make it clear” how France will stay engaged in Afghanistan.
Hollande said on May 18 that France would support Afghanistan in a “different way” and he would abide by his campaign pledge to withdraw French combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year.
Prime Minister David Cameron of the U.K., which has the second biggest contingent of troops in Afghanistan after the U.S., said the goal remains preventing the country from becoming a haven for terrorist training camps.
“I’m very confident that one way or the other our troops will come home and Afghanistan will be looked after by Afghan security forces,” Cameron said.
Even with the withdrawal date set, Obama, who visited Afghanistan on May 2 to sign an agreement with Karzai on the transition, warned there are still “hard days ahead.”
General John Allen, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, said the Taliban remain “a resilient and capable opponent” that will keep fighting Afghan forces after the U.S. and allied front-line role shrinks.
“We fully expect that combat is going to continue,” he said at a briefing in Chicago. Even as Afghan forces take more of a lead role in counterinsurgency operations next year, he said any notion that U.S. combat operations will stop in 2013 “is not in fact correct.”
Karzai said that transition to Afghan-led security forces would mean that his country is “no longer a burden” on the international community. He said he wanted to express “the gratitude of the Afghan people for the support that your taxpayers’ money has provided us over the past decade.”
At the two-day summit, Obama will work to persuade financially pressed European governments and their war-weary citizens to back Afghanistan’s security over the next decade. The U.S. wants allies, many of which are cutting budgets, to help cover the $4.1 billion a year needed to finance Afghan security forces after 2014.
Obama said that, for the alliance in Afghanistan, there is “a vision post-2014 in which we have ended our combat role, the Afghan war as we understand it is over, but our commitment to friendship and partnership with Afghanistan continues.”
The U.S. also is trying to smooth friction with Afghanistan’s neighbor, Pakistan. Obama probably will leave Chicago without an agreement to reopen NATO supply lines through Pakistan.
Pakistan closed Afghan supply routes from its Karachi port in retaliation for a U.S. airstrike that killed its soldiers instead of the intended militant targets. The U.S. said it was an accident. Tensions also were heightened by the U.S. raid on the compound in Pakistan where Osama bin Laden was hiding.
Some 30 percent of NATO supplies went through Pakistan before the suspension, according to the Pentagon. NATO has switched to northern routes.
While Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari is at the summit, there are no plans for Obama to have a separate meeting with him while the issue is unresolved.
Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, said the U.S. doesn’t expect to complete negotiations this weekend. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Zardari today and Rhodes said it’s a “positive sign” that talks on the dispute are continuing.
To contact the reporters on this story: Margaret Talev in Chicago at firstname.lastname@example.org; Hans Nichols in Chicago at email@example.com
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Steven Komarow at firstname.lastname@example.org